Interstellar Comet Seen Flying Through the Solar System

Interstellar Comet
Interstellar Comet

Photo Illustration

C/2017 K2, or K2 for close ones, is not a comet quite like the others. Indeed, it follows a hyperbolic orbit and thus comes from another stellar system. However, this does not prevent it from visiting us from time to time.

K2 was observed for the first time on May 12, 2013 from the Canada-France-Hawaii Observatory in Hawaii. Located near the summit of Maunea Kea, the latter is more than four thousand meters above sea level and it includes several unique instruments. Among them are a large-field high-resolution imager consisting of thirty-six CCD sensors for a total of three hundred and four million pixels, an infrared imager consisting of four CCDs and several spectrographs.

However, it was not until May of this year that this amazing comet was characterized as part of an exploration program called Pan-STARRS. Little known to the laypersons, the latter is the result of the collaboration between MIT, the Maui High Performance Center and the Institute of Astronomy of the University of Hawaii.

Based on the use of four telescopes, this rather unusual program aims to discover and catalog asteroids, comets, variable stars and all other celestial objects inhabiting space.

According to the information in our possession, K2 originates from the famous cloud of Oort and therefore from a hypothetical location set beyond the orbit of the planets and the Kuiper belt.

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Why hypothetical? Simply because nobody has yet managed to observe it directly. In fact, astronomers have “discovered” it by examining the orbits of comets and they think that most of these bodies are from this famous cloud, a cloud located between twenty thousand and one hundred thousand astronomical units according to their calculations.

This information is to be taken with all usual precautions, but K2 would be under the influence of the Sun for millions of years and the body would also be following a hyperbolic open orbit.

Unlike bodies describing an elliptical orbit, objects in a hyperbolic orbit are not limited to the solar system and so navigate through interstellar space. Tony Dunn, an astronomer who loves astrophysics and is fascinated by orbits, has done a simulation to help us visualize the phenomenon. It is at the end of the article.

As of now, K2 would be between the orbit of Mercury and the Sun. For now, we do not know if it will stay in our system or if it will be ejected in the near future. It will take two to three weeks to gather more data to determine that.

The report of the IAU can be viewed at this address.

Carl Frantz

Polyglot, humanitarian, Carl was born in Germany but raised in the USA. He writes mostly on tech, science and culture.